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Like a Mustard Seed: Cultural Stewardship

September 18, 2020

Steven Elmore


In the Cultivating community, we talk frequently in metaphors of agriculture and gardening. Sowing seeds. Tilling the soil. Plotting gardens. Enabling growth. Of course, cultivating. Even though most of us are at least a couple of generations removed from the actual work of farming, we know that talking in the language of growth and working the land is both Biblical and fitting.

Our work as Christian creatives, at its core, is concerned with stewarding the culture around us. The word “culture,” a Middle French word, has the same roots as “cultivating” – the Latin noun cultus, and the Latin verb colere. Both words have a range of definitions, including “worship,” “cherish,” “tend,” “take care of,” “adorn,” “till,” and “promote growth.”

This language is important, as it both reflects how we see the world around us as well as how we interact with that world. Language matters—as much as we sometimes wish words weren’t deeds, they are. Words are, to the soul, heart, and body (our brains are physical too), sticks and stones that do “break bones.” When we speak using only words of war and battle or even disdain towards our culture, we might think we are only expressing our emotions, but we are also forming habits of thought.

When, as Christians, we use language that is bleached of grace and love in response to culture and our cultural adversaries, we confirm a worldview that sees the secular as lesser, and thus unsaved people as lesser, rather than fellow beings made in God’s image, in need of the Gospel.

Language Springs from the Font of our Worldview

There are many ways we can choose to approach culture as Christians. The major examples can be divided into “fight, flight, freeze, or appease”—the same responses we as humans use to deal with stress and trauma individually.

We might see the culture as an enemy and fight against its avatars—Hollywood, the news media on the right or left, politicians on the right or left, the internet, Millennials, Boomers, city folks, country folks, etc. Many of the models-at-large of Christians against the world start out with the goal of positively identifying sin, but easily become overly focused on maintaining or regaining control. “If only we could pass these laws then things will be right again.” “If only the demonic forces controlling the other side were vanquished then we could go back (or forward) to a better time.” “It’s the end times, anyway, so we should fight, and fight hard, using the same tactics as the world.”

We might instead choose flight through retreat and separation. Some current arguments advocate the idea that we should retreat from the world, gather up what we hold dear, and wait it out until things are better. Historically, several Christian denominations have taken the approach to segregate themselves from culture, either physically or in activities—don’t see, hear, taste, touch, smell the wrong cultural products. Better draw a hard line of separation and remain pure, lest temptation be too strong and lead us astray.

Freeze and appease I’ll combine, as each is predicated on ignoring the sins inherent in human culture. Some Christians decide to go about their business, keeping church on Sunday and everything else during the week. Others accept attitudes that aren’t Christian, either without examination of their values or in knowing rebellion against historical orthodoxy. They accommodate or ignore the culture around them until they are “no longer salty” [Matthew 5:13].

In fact, most of us probably adopt multiple forms of these responses, even on the same day. But we should explore whether any of these ways of responding to the world around us is particularly Christian. Or are they merely human? The result of all these attitudes is that we maintain a view of culture as separate, as other, as non-holy. If culture is a primary tool for co-laboring to grow God’s kingdom, then maintaining this sacred/secular dualism can have unproductive and dangerous effects.

So how then should we respond to the world? What is a proper response to a fallen culture? Rather than fight, flight, freeze, or appease, I believe that we are supposed to rally in community and then do the more difficult, long term, much less dramatic work of stewarding culture.

Christian Stewardship of Culture

In Genesis 1:28, a passage that is often known as the “cultural mandate,” we are given a directive: “God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue* it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth”[NASB}. *Footnote: Though there is some debate,

the Hebrew word here for “subdue” is kabash, which is taken by many scholars in the agricultural sense of “making the earth productive and useful.”

In Genesis 2:15, we see another mandate to be productive in the world: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” [NASB].

And even when Adam and Eve are given their curses for eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the curses still contain this greater purpose—to labor in the world as stewards of God—but now with pain and death involved. Even the curse of the Fall contains His purpose.

On this point, Nancy Pearcey, in her book Total Truth, writes:

Our calling is not just to “go to heaven” but also to cultivate the earth, not just to “save souls” but also to serve God through our work. For God Himself is engaged not only in the work of salvation but also in the work of preserving and developing His creation. When we obey the Cultural Mandate, we participate in the work of God Himself, as agents of His common grace…. being a Christian means embarking on a lifelong process of growth in grace, both in our personal lives (sanctification) and in our vocations (cultural renewal). (p. 59)

Paul states, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” [Col 3:17, NASB]. And Peter adds, “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God (1 Pet. 4:10)” [NASB]. We learn in the Parable of Talents (Matthew 25:14-29), that a steward is a manager who serves his master in his absence, not only caretaking the property and household in a neutral way, but also actively using his talents to benefit and grow the estate.

Whatever we are called to in all aspects of our lives—work, play, hobbies, community, church meetings—the way of Christian cultural stewardship takes time and seeks long-term profit with daily, short-term labor. Stewardship is a path of humility, self-control, patience, kindness, and hospitality (Titus 1:7-9.) It is an attitude that trusts God will provide the sunshine, rain, and miracle growth of the mustard seed (Mark 4:26-30). For our small part, we engage in the blessing of working for and with Him.

Sometimes this means using our talents to prepare the ground (cultivate) or to plant seeds in a culture that may not bear fruit for many years or even in our lifetimes. Other times, this means doing the humble and more thankless labor of adding fertilizer or clearing out pests or weeds. And still other times, we have the joy of gathering and sharing in the harvest.

I speak metaphorically, but there are many ways to do this in our lives as Christians. For artists specifically, this means finding ways to unify individual self-expression with God’s goodness, truth, and beauty while shaping that for a specific audience.

The Gospel is carried by more seeds than just bald truth.

For creatives who don’t specialize in artistic creation (for we are all creatives), this may mean applying the Gospel to your secular work. What is a Christian view of business? Of retail sales? Of education? Of politics? How does your work every day carry these seeds of God’s kingdom? I don’t only mean taking opportunities for direct evangelism or merely holding high ethical standards, but also looking at how your bigger purpose as a Christian fits with your bigger purpose as a worker in whatever field you are in. Your demeanor, behavior, language, thoughts, emotions—all of this can shift when we see the world around us, natural and cultural, as land created by God for his purposes and for our co-laboring.

This isn’t always easy, of course, but it is fruitful and has real effects. This response to culture is harder than posting a disapproving comment on Facebook or talking about the news with your friends. It takes more dedication than thinking about faith mostly on Sundays. But it’s also more effective. The real, good work in this world takes time, and we often make mistakes.

Redeeming culture begins by seeing culture as part of God’s creation, fallen though it may be. We all need to ask ourselves, sometimes daily, “What plot of land and talents has God given you and how are you tending it?” And above all, have hope in the Lord as we go about our work as co-laborers in His creation and His redemption.

Resources for Continued Reading:

Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey (a good perspective on the idea of Christian cultural engagement and the cultural mandate)

Apologetics and the Christian Imagination by Holly Ordway (discusses the idea of cultural apologetics)

Changes that Heal by Henry Cloud (useful for personal, individual growth)

The featured image is courtesy of Aaron Burden.

You can see more of Aaron’s remarkable images here and here.


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